MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The University of Minnesota plans to break ground next month on its $166 million Athletes Village, which will include updated practice and training facilities for football and basketball teams that officials say are necessary to keep the school competitive in the Big Ten.
A Board of Regents committee approved the project Thursday. The full board gave its unanimous final approval Friday.
"I think we as a university owe it to our student athletes," board chairman Dean Johnson said. "We clearly have third-rate facilities. We're not competitive at all."
The project has been delayed for months over concerns about costs — the initial price tag was $190 million — and that it could violate gender-equity laws.
The university has raised about $76.5 million from donors. Nearly $90 million will be borrowed and repaid by the athletics department. The university usually secures 80 percent of fundraising before starting construction, but not this time. President Eric Kaler says the school wants to break ground before it freezes for the winter.
Regent Darrin Rosha said there's a risk in starting construction with such a fundraising shortfall, but he said the university might as well disband its sports program if it can't commit to excellence.
"I think this is necessary to be competitive," Rosha said. Fundraising for the project will continue.
Under the plan, track facilities used by nearly half of the school's female athletes will be demolished, and the new project will focus on sports dominated by male athletes. That prompted a gender discrimination complaint, and the U.S. Department of Education is investigating.
To resolve that concern, the university announced last month that it would build a new, competitive track on the East Bank campus in Minneapolis. In addition, all of the school's intercollegiate athletes will have access to a new "Center for Excellence," which will include nutrition and dining facilities, classrooms and tutoring space.
The Athletes Village has been a priority of football coach Jerry Kill, who said the current facilities undermine recruiting efforts because they are overcrowded and outdated.
"It will be tremendous for the athletics department," Kill said. "It's not just football. This school needs it, period."